Curl power: Pubes and Nudes

Friedlander_Nudes-81-760x505

An interesting question I felt should be addressed by my ramblings on the nude is that of body hair. It seems particularly in the case of pubic hair, that hair can be just as much a social skin as the skin it covers in that its removal or cultivation speaks much to society about the individual it resides (or doesn’t reside) upon.

Hair removal is a widespread practice and has been consistently put down in the West to the aesthetics of pornography. In pornographic photos and films many critics have argues that the choice to remove both male and female pubic hair been instrumental in resetting the “norms” of bodily appearance in an attempt to better display sex without all that pesky hair in the way. I would argue that this answer is perhaps part of the reason but is not in any way absolute.

Victoria Tecca cites Leach in her discussion of political hair who theorises that

Unrestrained sexuality = long hair

Restricted sexuality = short hair, partially shaven head, or tightly bound hair

Celibacy = closely shaven head

Yet it seems interesting that in the case of women in particular (although male grooming trends are becoming increasingly normalised) this formula would be reversed and closely shaven pubic hair would indicate an overt sexuality.

Toerien and Wilkinson argue, “The hairlessness norm powerfully endorses the assumption that a woman’s body is unacceptable if unaltered (2003:333). They also rightly point out that hair removal is also importantly not something modern nor purely Western as “accounts of women’s hair removal come from ancient times and diverse cultures, including ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the Tobriand Islands, Uganda, South America and Turkey (2003:333).

The renaissance period provides evidence for hair removal in its paintings such as the “The Birth of Venus” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (below). Kay Larson makes the interesting point that in contrast, Lee Friedlander’s work (see top image) sets off “fascinating social alarms” in his proud display of body hair. For Larson and for myself these images allow “him to sat something new on the exhausted topic of the nude which has always been hairless, in art and photography” (1991:54). She suggests that depilation in art and photography particularly renaissance art is simply because “hair is a reminder of both her flesh-and-blood corporeality and individuality” (1991:54). Thus to have a hairless Venus is to have a true goddess, as a consequence, to become goddess-like, one must be hairless.

800px-The_Birth_of_Venus_by_William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1879)

800px-The_Birth_of_Venus_by_William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1879)

A 1532 book of secrets gives this concerning recipe:

How to Remove or Lose Hair from Anywhere on the Body

Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.

This simply denotes the practice of hair removal as something of the norm long before Internet pornography. The perceived need to alter the body is something that I don’t believe will ever disappear. In the case of pubic hair, an individuals choice in grooming is undeniably culturally driven and whether removal or growth denotes conformity or transgression, it seems the humble muff has a lot to speak for.

Burke, j. (2012). Did renaissance women remove their body hair?. [online] Jill Burke’s Blog. Available at: https://renresearch.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/did-renaissance-women-remove-their-body-hair/ [Accessed 23 Mar. 2015].

Larson, K. (1991). The Naked Truth?. New York Times.

Leach, E. (1958). Magical Hair. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 88(2), p.147.

Toerien, M. and Wilkinson, S. (2003). Gender and body hair: constructing the feminine woman. Women’s Studies International Forum, 26(4), pp.333-344.

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2 thoughts on “Curl power: Pubes and Nudes

  1. jeffhaynes says:

    Interesting read. I have no doubt that art influences the decisions people make about their own bodies. I am equally certain that any modification (such as to shave or trim body hair) will be kept on a sustained basis only after the person decides whether he/she likes it. It’s one thing to try something once (or twice) based on ideas seen represented in art. But sooner or later, the person will be deciding –independently of external influences — do I like this? Do I like how it looks/feels? Those are the questions that lead to whether a style is kept.

    Like

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